Democrat victory, Conservative gain?

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Nov 28, 2006 12:01 AM
Democrat victory, Conservative gain?

Leading up to the election, many conservatives were wailing about how the world was going to come to an end if Democrats won. Well, the world is still here, and we are even starting to see some good news for conservative policies from the Democratic takeover.

The first good news was putative House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's screw-up in endorsing Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as majority leader. Murtha is an old-fashioned pork-barrel politician with a spotty ethical record -- he was implicated in the ABSCAM investigation in the 1970s -- and a relatively conservative voting record. But lately, he has turned strongly against the Iraq War, which made him a hero to left-wingers like Pelosi.

Pelosi was known to support Murtha for the majority leader's post over the current No. 2 Democrat in the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., whom she personally dislikes. But Hoyer's skills as a fund-raiser and deal-maker made him a virtual shoo-in for the position, so everyone assumed that Pelosi would offer a token endorsement for Murtha, but not put her personal prestige on the line in what would surely be a losing effort.

To the astonishment of almost all political observers, Pelosi not only endorsed Murtha but did indeed put her prestige on the line, pushing hard for his election. So when Hoyer won by a two-to-one margin, it immediately knocked Pelosi down a notch and revealed her poor political judgment for all to see. Pelosi must now share the House leadership with a rival who owes her nothing and has every incentive to exploit her missteps.

Rather than learning from her mistake, Pelosi almost immediately embroiled herself in another controversy by announcing that Rep. Jane Harmon, D-Calif., whom she also dislikes, would not be appointed as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. By implication, Pelosi favored Rep. Alcee Hastings, a black Democrat from Florida.

The problem is that Hastings also has ethical baggage, having been removed from office as a federal judge in the 1980s for having allegedly accepted bribes. Under ordinary circumstances, anyone with this kind of record would be immediately rejected for a position giving him access to our nation's most critical national security secrets.

But Hastings has strong support from the Congressional Black Caucus, meaning that Pelosi will pay a political price if she passes him over for someone else. This is another no-win situation that could easily have been avoided, and further demonstrates that her political skills may be inadequate to her new position as speaker of the House.

In yet another bit of good news for conservatives, Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who will chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, announced his support for reinstituting a military draft. A more unpopular idea is hard to imagine, and it was immediately rejected by other Democrats. If he keeps pushing it, however, Rangel could see the antiwar left switch its fire from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Rangel also announced plans to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, which will rise sharply next year under current law unless action is taken. But in keeping with the Democrats' insistence on fiscal responsibility, he acknowledged that other taxes will have to rise to pay for the fix. Since it will cost some $800 billion over the next 10 years just to keep the AMT from rising, Rangel is going to need a really large tax increase to keep his promise. Some tax experts believe that this could open the door to meaningful tax reform by creating an action-forcing event that can overcome the political inertia that has prevented progress.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is in line to chair the Committee on Financial Services, said it was time to reopen the misguided Sarbanes-Oxley legislation that was enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal. While doing nothing to prevent another Enron -- it wouldn't have prohibited a single thing that got the company in trouble -- it has imposed a heavy compliance burden on American companies, which is handicapping their international competitiveness.

This is something the Republicans should have done, but couldn't because a co-author of the bill, Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, is chairman of the committee with jurisdiction and refuses to concede his error. So nothing happened. Hence, Frank's elevation to the chairmanship opens the possibility of a reform that probably wouldn't have occurred had Republicans remained in control.

Finally, we are hearing Democrats in Congress acknowledge that they must produce legislation if they hope to retain their majority in 2008. This means that they will have to bargain with a Republican White House unless they expect all their bills to fall victim to vetoes. The result could be Democratic support for conservative initiatives that Democrats would otherwise oppose. They will have to give if they hope to get for themselves.